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The colour of life

semi-overcast 11 °C


I may not know why I like art but I do know that I have always loved it. Something not a lot of people know about me is that before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a painter. And I have wanted to be writer since I was eight, lost in the otherworldy dreamscapes of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, C.S. Lewis' Narnia and Mary Norton's The Borrowers, curled up in bed encircled by the red bricks and rowan trees of Rathfarnham dreaming of making imaginary worlds of my own. I dream of that still.

Before even then, I was an enormous fan of colour. Sometimes I think I liked blue before anything else on this Earth. My overriding sensory memory of my first years at school is the smell of school-supply paints and chalks. My earliest memory of all is of my mother taking me down the corridor of a grey and crappy but then stlll-new prefabricated building as a very small child of four or five to meet my teacher, the round-spectacled, white-bloused, blue Hillary Clinton-jacketed Mrs Donnelly. I don't remember if it was my first day of school or some other day, only the vibrant red of the floor and how it shimmered in the morning sun. A few years later, my parents were so proud of a oil painting I made when I was about 11 of a canal barge they bought a frame for it and hung it up on the wall, even though it was colour by numbers. It's still there, and I'm proud of it too.

In time, my interest in writing grew as my vocabulary swelled and I started to become known as the boy who was the best at English - a title I held on to all the way through to the end of school when I got the A1 grade everyone said was impossible to get because they gave it to no one - and I forgot about paintings, thinking I wasn't really that good at it anyways. When at secondary school and given the choice of Art, History or Music I went for Music and traded the paintbrush for a clarinet and that was it. Looking at the tubes of paint above I can't help but feel nostalgic, though it must be more than 20 years since I held one of them.


Still, you never lose an eye for art once you have it. Other people yawn through art galleries and delight in history museums, I yawn at museums and eagerly await the gallery. The first thing I look up about a city when I'm going or thinking of going there for holiday is - does it have a good modern art gallery? Every time. I once visited the medieval town of Albi in southwest France because it's the hometown of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and has a nice little gallery devoted to him. What else is there? Aside from a train station, which I know because that's how I get there, I have literally no idea. It applies to daily life to: I have lunch in the Barbican almost every day now just so I have an hour to feel cultural amidst the City hubbub

Travel for everyone is about sights, but which kind of sights varies more than you might think. I saw a listing for an animal theme park in Tenerife the other day and was little short of revulsed. And it's #1 on Tripadvisor. My kind of travel is to go to a place, learn about the people there and their culture and try to experience a little of the life they live. You can do a lot of this through art because it gives you a view of what inspires them, what they like to look at and what they choose to immortalize in pigment. Picasso will give you visions of Spain (along with his adopted Paris of course), and Canaletto's paintings are more Venice than Venice itself. And while his brother William Butler vies for attention in the crowded Irish canon of poets, authors and playwrights, Jack Butler Yeats stands alone in his many paintings chronicling Irish life.


Plus when you travel you can see a hell of a lot of nice art. The Chagall stained-glass windows of the Fraumünster are one of Zurich's finest assets, to name one of many I've seen all around Europe and further afield at this stage. I'm glad I queued for two hours in the August sun to get into the Uffizi in Florence and see its many artistic delights at the age of 21, because if i tried to do that again I would probably faint from heatstroke. Aside from the many amazing Japanese things I saw on my first trip to Tokyo in 2006, obviously, another memory that sticks out strongly is going to Africa Remix at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. A truly fabulous collection of art from all over Africa, I had no idea until afterwards it had already been on show in London, Paris and Hamburg before I travelled from Dublin half way round the world to see it and love it in Asia. Of course some paintings are so powerful they transcend location. After all Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night is for many the timeless epitomy of the Paris cafe scene even though you have to go to a gallery in Otterlo, Netherlands to see it and it actually depicts a cafe in Arles.


Art is different for everyone, and as much as people may love portraits of 17th century royals of various hues, I think they're vacuous and vanishingly dull. The National Portrait Gallery, sitting proudly in the centre of Trafalgar Square, is London's least interesting art gallery by my reckoning, especially while the city boasts a regular program of visiting exhibitions at galleries all over town to rival any other city in the world. Give me Mark Rothko's visionary monochrome of the Moon that recently landed in the Royal Academy or Kazemir Malevich's many Suprematist masterpieces that lit up the Tate Modern last year any day.

As much as the temptation may be to list out your favourites, the best painting for me, I'm sure, will always be the next one. I'm really looking forward to seeing Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the RA, and am currently waiting like a sleeper cell of art fandom for a quiet Tuesday some weeks after the opening to see it and have the room all but to myself. Ditto America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. And so on. How lucky I am to live in London and have the luxury of waiting for the right moment. After all that's art itself, life at the right moment. Grab it while you still can.

Posted by BillLehane 09:09 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged art london france colour holidays youth painting irish blog Comments (0)

Photoblog: Bordeaux wine country

Bordeaux city, Saint-Émilion and the Haut-Médoc vineyards

sunny 12 °C
View bordeaux on BillLehane's travel map.


Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux


Pont de pierre, Bordeaux


Porte Cailhau, Bordeaux


Clock Tower, Monolithic Church (Clocher de l'eglise Monolithe)


Saint-Émilion shopping


The Cloister at the Collegiate Church (église collégiale)


Posted by BillLehane 10:46 Archived in France Tagged france travel wine trip southwest bordeaux citybreak saintemilion hautmedoc winetour Comments (0)

Bill's European Adventure, 2001. Part 2: Barcelona

Aug 16

After sleeping on a mattress in Élise’s place, we got to Paris Austerlitz train station by 10am and got on the 10h11 train to Limoges. Our intention had been to go to Périgueux via Limoges, and then to Barcelona via Bordeaux the next day, but the complications of five trains with huge gaps in one long day meant that we abandoned going to Périgueux. We got to the train station at Limoges intending to get a night train to Barcelona, but it was booked out so we reserved seats on tomorrow’s first train (9.50) which gets to Barcelona at 6 in the evening.

Got a surprisingly nice room in the one-star Beaux d’Art hotel for 80f each (£10), with a TV!! MCM, a better version of MTV with all English songs, keeps us entertained. An hour-and-a-half special of Glastonbury 2000 was the backdrop to tasty Kronenbourg 25cl cans, and cheap vinegar (sorry, wine) that Ollie and Julie had. We also came across ‘Blues Brothers 2000’ dubbed into French, and ‘Le Maillon Faible’ – the French’ Weakest Link’.

My abiding view of Limoges was that it’s just a town that people pass through, half-way between Paris and Toulouse, with parts of it reminding me of Naas and Cashel. It was obviously built on a mountain, as several hill climbs in search for accommodation proved.

Aug 17

Had a strong ‘grand crème’ (coffee with cream) in Limoges train station before getting on the 3603 9.50 train to Barça. After 20f each to reserve seats, we ended up in unreserved seats because we couldn’t find carriage 15, which was not between 16 and 14.

Met a French physics student while smoking between carriages (a sign on the wall says ‘Merci de non pas fumer’ with an arrow pointing down to the ashtray fixed to the wall underneath! The power of French people’s blind-eye attitude to smoking in trains, stations and many other places is quite incredible, and much more liberal, unexpectedly, than in Ireland). Amusing myself on the train with Tim’s book ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, which is blackly comic, my favourite kind of humour!

…Just had a cigarette at my inter-carriage spot admiring the golden countryside between Carcasonne and Narbonne, within 100 miles of the Spanish border. I had been listening to a variety of French stations on my radio, including everything from a jazz piece called ‘Marmalade Saxaphone’ to the Bangles ‘Manic Monday’!

…In Barça! Las Ramblas is like a hot, dirty O’Connell Street – we’re staying in the 1* Hotel Real on the Place du Real – they gave us a 5-bed room!


Aug 18

Got a bus from Barcelona city centre to a campsite 9km outside it, deciding to atone for our one-star indulgence. 1km walk through a nature reserve in 30˚ heat with backpacks to the site was a test of manhood!

The site was like a holiday camp for working class Spaniards – beach, pool, bar, restaurant – some even slept in caravans with satellite TV! Lolled around after setting up our tiny 2-man tent. Swam in the beach – nice, but sand got everywhere!

Dinner in the restaurant was crap and our skirmish with 3 plastic garden chairs from the bar to tent seemed successful until the barman came and confiscated them! Sat on our sleeping bag covers on the ground drinking 6-packs of San Miguel bottles (£2 each!)

Two seeming lesbians were in one of the tents opposite – they were so precious they had milk and cookies before bed! The tent beside us held an Italian couple who seemed to hate each other – Ollie dubbed their camping trip ‘the last ditch attempt to save their marriage’! Offered drugs by hippies in another tent.

Night’s “sleep” was interrupted, scorching, cramped and painful – woke up with a multiple-paining (now a word!) back, sore head and dehydrated system. My first impressions of camping are that it’s fun, but we were severely under prepared and unequipped. To think Tim has ‘scouted’ for almost a decade and this is my first night in a tent!

Aug 19

Left the campsite at midday, getting a bus to Barcelona city centre. Sent e-mails from a nearby net café (£1 for 44 mins), strolled half-way down Las Ramblas and then stopped for coffee at Café Cosmos courtesy of my Dad.

Strolled through the souvenir stalls finding nothing I liked, and then flopped down at a green at the street’s end, staing at the tall Christopher Columbus statue, that must have looked like Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin

Went down to Barcelona’s new wave-shaped pier – not as good as it sounds, but it has a very Americanised mall at the end, in which I bought a German frankfurter (globalisation?!)

Took the night train from Barcelona to Nice after a train to Cerbere on the French border (we had to go there first). The night was hellish – 6-seater cabin with a perverted Frenchman, a deaf mute and his half-deaf, half-dumb wife and their two-year-old boy – I felt like taking the poor child off the train with me as I took a smoke break at 2am out in the corridor, having had enough of the bitch mother slapping the boy for wheezing almost noiselessly. She made more noise than the child, and I wanted to hit her back for the kid, disabled woman or not. Had G and Ts out of plastic cups after everybody got out at Marseille. Weird!*

*I haven't mentioned it here, but the sight of Ollie deliriously shooing these awful people out of their seats at dawn before giving the woman a shove out of the carriage and slamming the door behind her was one of the funniest things I have ever seen!

Posted by BillLehane 02:08 Archived in Spain Tagged trains barcelona france travel spain student interrail limoges Comments (0)

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